Welcome back to the Year of Fear. Each week until Election Day, the Delacorte Review and Columbia Journalism Review will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
With everything else that’s happened during America’s annus horribilis of 2020, it’s easy to overlook the fact that this is a US Census year.
Just as it’s wreaked havoc on businesses, schools, and sports teams, so, too, has COVID-19 affected the census. A lockdown was imposed in Pennsylvania while the US Census Bureau was mailing 2020 forms. In years past, households that failed to return their forms were visited in person by enumerators, but many of the temporary workers hired to perform the task this year reportedly dropped out of training due to the pandemic, leaving the bureau with only 220,000 of the 300,000 canvassers it needs.
Already under fire for trying to politicize the count by attempting to include a question on US citizenship, the Trump administration has now ordered the US Census Bureau to end the data collection process a month earlier than officials requested, on September 30 instead of October 31.
In an editorial on August 2, the Washington Post suggested the 2020 Census is likely to miss between ten and fifteen percent of the population in some parts of the country, especially in communities with a high percentage of residents who are poor, Black, and who rent rather than own their homes.
McKeesport fits all three categories, as do nearby Monongahela Valley communities such as Duquesne and East Pittsburgh. Their response rates to the Census so far are indeed dismal––forty-nine percent in McKeesport, forty-eight percent across the river in Duquesne and forty-seven percent in East Pittsburgh, compared to sixty-eight percent for all Pennsylvania residents.
There are historic reasons why some populations don’t complete the census. Poor people are often transient. People who rent rather than own homes may receive the form at one address but move to a new location without completing it in either place. Black families who have suffered at the hands of public officials, including police, are liable to be suspicious of any attempt by a government agency to pry into their personal lives.
Regardless of the causes, the end result will be the same: those neighborhoods that need the most state and federal support for education, housing, health care, and public transit are also the most likely to lose that assistance if the 2020 Census shows their population has shrunk dramatically.
Black residents also are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates in elections, and since the Census helps determine the boundaries of state House and Senate districts as well as Congressional Districts, they’re certain to be disenfranchised.
In the end, it’s hard not to conclude—as the Post did—that the Trump administration is deliberately trying to undercount places such as McKeesport for ideological and political reasons.
Even without an intentional undercount, the 2020 Census is expected to show that McKeesport’s population has shrunk, as it has in every census since 1950. From a World War II high of 55,355, the city has lost roughly two-thirds of its residents, to about 19,000 today.
The outward migration began during the post-World War II boom years, when workers moved their families to new suburbs with names such as Pleasant Hills to escape the pollution and noise of the steel mills where they earned their paychecks.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Black steelworkers, until then forced into low-paying jobs in the mills, fought for better-paying positions and the right to purchase homes in previously all-white neighborhoods. That’s when white flight took hold; to this day, despite fair-housing laws, some of the townships close to McKeesport remain between ninety-seven and ninety-nine percent white. The collapse of the American steel industry in the 1980s accelerated the outward migration—this time, not to nearby suburbs, but to the southern US, as families left the Rust Belt in search of work.
McKeesport’s population loss isn’t as dramatic as that of nearby Braddock, home of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and current Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman. That borough has plummeted from twenty thousand residents to just two thousand. In fact, all of western Pennsylvania is declining in population, some communities more quickly than others.
According to political consultant Chris Nicholas, writing this summer in Catalyst, the magazine of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, only two counties in the state’s western half have increased their population in recent years—Butler, north of Pittsburgh, and Centre, home to Pennsylvania State University. Of Pennsylvania’s six media markets, Nicholas noted, only two—Harrisburg and Philadelphia—have grown, while the Pittsburgh market overall has shrunk by two percent. Philadelphia was the only Pennsylvania media market that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Although Pennsylvania’s overall population has increased slightly since 2010, the state is almost certainly going to lose one of its eighteen Congressional seats following the 2020 Census, and it seems likely the seat will be taken from Western Pennsylvania.
Speculation on why the Pittsburgh region continues to shrink usually focuses on “lack of jobs,” but that really isn’t the case. In fact, until the pandemic, the Pittsburgh region had the opposite problem: we had more jobs than workers to fill them.
In Beaver County, just north of Pittsburgh, Shell Oil is building a massive petrochemical plant. The company was reluctant to locate in Western Pennsylvania for fear that it wouldn’t be able to hire enough people from the shrinking local labor force. US Steel, which remains an important industrial employer here, has had problems finding qualified workers for its three remaining mills near McKeesport. UPMC Health System, now the region’s largest employer, is offering signing bonuses of up to $10,000 for registered nurses.
Our problem also isn’t a lack of affordability: according to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, in February 2020, the median home price in the Pittsburgh area was $152,000, versus $220,000 in Philly.
And finally, it’s not a lack of recreational, educational, or cultural opportunities—Pittsburgh has three professional sports teams, a symphony, an opera, and several major public and private universities.
Instead, I’m starting to wonder whether the Pittsburgh region continues to lose population because we’ve made ourselves unwelcoming. Although western Pennsylvania residents pride ourselves on our friendliness, and natives who move away often express regrets and want to return, people who are new to the area can receive a cold reception.
A co-worker who grew up in Ohio purchased a house in Braddock in the 1990s after graduating from college in Pittsburgh. Thirty years later, she still hears, “You’re not from around here.” I heard the same thing last week from a woman in Monessen, another former Mon Valley steelmaking town. She’s lived there for roughly fifty years, she said, and is still considered an “outsider.”
It’s a theme that’s popping up in political advertising this year. Emily Skopov, a Democratic candidate running for the Pennsylvania General Assembly in a district north of Pittsburgh, has been targeted by a Republican PAC. Its advertisements allege that Skopov, who grew up in New York and later worked in TV production in Los Angeles, will bring “Beverly Hills” and “California” values to the district.
The effects of this nativism are worse, naturally, for immigrants and Black people. Michael Santiago, a photojournalist who was a member of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2019 for its coverage of a shooting rampage at a synagogue, recently told the alt-weekly Pittsburgh City Paper that he intends to leave the region altogether. Santiago, who’s Black and was born in the Dominican Republic, told City Paper that even as other cities tear down Confederate flags and monuments, some Pittsburghers continue to embrace racism and xenophobia. “It is disheartening, knowing what Pittsburgh is like, and wanting to see some of that change,” Santiago said.
GQ columnist Damon Young, who grew up in Pittsburgh and created the Very Smart Brothas website (now part of G/O Media’s The Root), has made similar observations. Young—who once ran a youth program here in McKeesport—notes the Pittsburgh area lacks neighborhoods or even bars and restaurants where middle-class Black residents can relax and feel safe.
“Whatever the national disparities are in income, wealth, health and education, Pittsburgh is decidedly worse,” he wrote in a 2019 blog post at VSB. “Black nightlife here is a joke, the Black middle class is a whisper [and] Black political capital is a rumor.”
Pennsylvania was not a part of the Confederacy, but based on the number of Confederate battle flags around Pittsburgh, you could be forgiven for not knowing. I once asked a Black colleague, new to the area, what his first impressions were. “Northern Alabama,” he said, quickly.
In the 2016 election, Allegheny County, where McKeesport is located, went for Clinton by fifty-six to forty percent, but the greater Pittsburgh media market as a whole went for Trump by almost the opposite margin, according to Nicholas. If yard signs, flags and other merchandise are reliable indicators, President Trump still has many enthusiastic supporters in the outer suburbs. In August, my wife spotted a roadside stand selling Trump souvenirs on Route 51 a half-hour south of McKeesport, and a full-fledged “Trump Store” has opened in Pittsburgh’s North Hills.
My own progressive and creative friends, for the most part, have either moved from places like McKeesport into the city of Pittsburgh itself (which is politically becoming a “blue” dot in a sea of “red”) or have fled Western Pennsylvania entirely.
I suspect we’ve created a climate in Western Pennsylvania that now chases away our own young people—especially if they’re Black, creative, or liberal—while also repelling newcomers from staying in the region.
That’s deadly to our future. What’s even more troubling is that the more we lean into these nativist positions, the faster that our young, creative, and Black people will leave the area. It’s destined to become a feedback loop.
After World War II, while the suburbs around McKeesport were booming, the prairie communities of the United States and Canada became ghost towns when their youth moved away in search of better opportunities. I’m afraid that Western Pennsylvania is now heading that way, not for economic reasons, but for cultural and ideological ones.
If the trend persists (and I think it will), I don’t know if it will matter if housing continues to be affordable, jobs remain plentiful, and universities and professional sports teams are still just a few minutes away in Pittsburgh. At some point, the population decline of McKeesport—and Western Pennsylvania overall—is going to become a nose-dive from which we will never recover.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.
Jason Togyer is a lifelong resident of the Monongahela River valley area of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Denise, live just outside McKeesport. The founder of Tube City Online, a non-profit news website and Internet radio station, Togyer also serves as communications manager for a regional community development agency and previously worked as a magazine editor at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and as a reporter for the Washington, Pennsylvania Observer-Reporter, McKeesport Daily News, and Greensburg and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.